Monday, September 7, 2015

Viva Las Vegas!

We can't stop here! This is bat country!!

“Las Vegas is the expression, in glitter and concrete, of America's brittle and mutating id"
~ John Burdett ~

“Lost Wages” “Sin City” “Vegas” whatever your sobriquet of choice is, you're talking about the entertainment capital of the world... Las Vegas. Thanks to a questionable “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” marketing scheme and that shitty trilogy of Hangover movies, a Vegas vacation without self degradation and scandal is no vacation at all. So you would think. That's the Hollywood version of course. In reality the average visitor drops a few hundred in the casinos, drinks too much and fends off time share salesmen at every turn. Every solo artist that hits Vegas needs a band as does every dance troupe and revue. Not everyone playing on the strip travels with their own band like Elvis did. Most have to rely on the venues to supply musicians capable of playing that artists' songs and music exactly as recorded.

No problemo, Vegas has them covered, some of the best musicians in the country if not the world gravitate towards Vegas. Here's something you may not know, for years New Mexico musicians have shuffled to and fro between the land of enchantment and Las Vegas, Nevada. A number of local musicians have made names for themselves there, if nowhere else. Al Hurricane pulled an eight month tour of duty playing behind Fats Domino in the late 1960s. Spinning Wheel worked as an opening act during the same time period. The Killers may be big in their hometown, but I bet the average local knows as much about Sidro's Armada and Santa Fe & The Fat City Horns as they know about Mr. Brightside. “What kind of rat bastard psychotic would play that song- right now, at this moment?”

For all its glitz and glamour, Las Vegas is a factory town. It's a city of clock punchers, everyone from dishwasher to horn player is a working stiff keeping one eye on the clock and one foot pointed towards the door. It gives a whole new meaning to the term ”music industry” Jerry Lopez, who started out playing alongside his father and brothers in a Santa Fe based band, Los Hermanos Lopez y La Compania, remembers how after several years of driving thousands of miles across the western states, playing Vegas was such a refreshing change. Looking around, the Lopez brothers, who had been living on the road and staying in motels away from family, saw that “the road trips were smaller, the musicians had nice cars, nice homes” It was easy money.

Determined to find their niche, Lopez recalled “We kept coming back to Vegas” though their gigs weren't exactly on the Strip. “Our first gig, we were still playing Spanish music, was at a bar in North Town called the Scarlet Wagon” it was every bit as bad as it sounds “We were the band and the bouncers, it was a rough place, you would never go there.” But as luck would have it, while working the Scarlet Wagon they were introduced to Bobby Morris, an agent who's very first question was “Do you guys mind playing in front of topless girls?” Los Hermanos Lopez gave him a resounding “We have no problem with that” this landed them their first big break as musicians for “Get Down” a topless revue that packed the room and had a very successful run (as if it wouldn't, amirite?)

With a foot finally in the door, Jerry Lopez pushed the band in a new musical direction, a contemporary horn driven sound not unlike early Chicago, Tower of Power, Sons of Champlin. Bobby Morris was all in, suggesting that the band would need a new name and since they played like Chicago they should be named after a city. “Where you guys from” Morris asked “Santa Fe” the Lopez brothers replied “That's it!, that's your new name” Morris declared. “We morphed into a lounge band, but not a lounge band in the traditional sense” Jerry goes on “We worked the local nightclubs first, we did lots of original stuff” Jerry Lopez was trying to sidestep a trap that many Vegas bands would fall into “We didn't really want to work the lounges”

As Jerry explains, “Then (the late 70s) being a lounge act meant wearing polyester and ruffles, or tuxedos and playing Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree” It's not what Jerry had in mind for the band's long term future. Jerry honed his skills as a band leader, musical director and front man as Santa Fe worked an overnight shift, midnight to 5 a.m. Their act quickly became a popular hangout for other musicians working Vegas and the word got around, these guys are good. Soon Jerry found an ally in the entertainment director at The Mint, who encouraged Santa Fe to work their own material in their own way. It was a big deal and Jerry sings a song about the reaction they got “We had our hair grown long ~ we were looking kind of scruffy ~ the old school cats didn't dig our look”

Santa Fe generated a buzz on the strip earning the respect of the “old school cats” while gaining a reputation as a “must see” act. But, eventually the business end of Vegas started to change. Casinos cut back on entertainment budgets and as Jerry explains “the entertainment directors were no longer entertainment directors, they were coming out of food & beverage, marketing and even the gift shop” It was time for a change ”They didn't respect the musicians” Jerry went out on the road with Tom Scott, Bill Champlin, Kenny Loggins and Luis Miguel. He also found plenty of work as a back up and session musician, touring, recording jingles, television soundtracks. Eventually the road brought him back to Vegas and he assembled Santa Fe & The Fat City Horns (no connection to the Albuquerque band, Fat City.... fairly certain Jerry named them after the song “Fat City” by The Sons of Champlin)

This 15 piece, revamped version continues to work in Vegas to this day. (I don't recognize any of the current musicians other than Jose Jimenez, who I believe worked on The John Wagner Coalition's album “Shades of Brown” in 1976) Along the way Jerry Lopez was nominated for a Grammy in 2009 for his work on the “Tortilla Factory's All that Jazz” album and then was up for nomination again in 2011 for his Spanish music album “Mis Raices” which was an inherently personal project, recorded as an ode to his father Gilbert. The CD was on the ballot for Best Regional Mexican or Tejano Album. “It was just something to do to honor my father, but we did a really good job with it,” Lopez says. “Maybe that warmth came through, and that’s how it got all this attention.”

I have a hunch that folks don't go to Vegas for introspective entertainment, they want a buzz saw of excitement to go with their free drinks. By it's very nature, Vegas lounge music is tailored so as not to offend or make anyone feel uncomfortable. Santa Fe & The Fat City Horns give 'em what they want. A good time delivered in the same fashion as those mythical Vegas buffets that always fall just short of our expectations. Big heaping plates of musical meatloaf topped off with mounds of musical mashed potatoes and a huge helping of corn. Santa Fe & The Fat City Horns ooze talent, they grind like no others, the music rips and roars but it's soul music without the soul, funk music without the funk. It just don't stick to your ribs..... let the healing continue, Check Please!

Turn the music up! My heart feels like an alligator!”

Sidro Garcia arrived in Las Vegas long before the Lopez clan. In fact he may well have been one of those “old school cats” that Jerry Lopez sings about. By the time Los Hermanos Lopez morphed into Santa Fe, Sidro and his then wife Beverlee Brown were well established, not just in Las Vegas but all over the U.S. When Beverlee & Sidro first hit Las Vegas in 1966, it was during a transitional period. Howard Hughes was just settling in, having bought the Desert Inn after he was asked to vacate the penthouse to make room for New Year's Eve guests. Elvis Presley who would marry Priscilla Beaulieu at the Aladdin Hotel the following year, was the talk of the town. Actual Mobsters and the Memphis Mafia rubbed elbows on the strip. Rat Pack holdovers jockeyed for photo ops with the King. Squares still ruled this corner of the world, hippies be damned.

Elvis had been scorned and lambasted after his very first Vegas appearance in 1956 "He stands up there clutching his guitar, he shakes and shivers like he is suffering from itchy underwear and hot shoes," wrote Ralph Pearl of The Las Vegas Sun. "For the average Vegas spender or show goer, [Elvis is] a bore," wrote another of the Sun's critics, Bill Willard. However, “Viva Las Vegas” in which Elvis co-starred with Ann Margaret changed all that. Two years hence, Elvis would play his first sold-out Vegas show at the International, where he would hold court, posting a record 837 consecutive sold out performances over seven years, drawing a total of 2.5 million paying customers to his shows. Over that seven years, Elvis is said to have sold $43.7 million in tickets alone. Cue..... Also sprach Zarathustra, the dawn of a new era was upon us.

Sidro Garcia was destined for success, either in athletics or music. He grew up in Willard, N.M a village located on highway 60, east of the Manzanos. Sidro excelled on the hardwood and diamond, enough so that St. Joseph's college in Albuquerque recruited him to play basketball. He also received an offer to play pro baseball with The Albuquerque Dukes, then playing in the class A Western League as an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. His choice was made easier when The Western league and The Dukes folded the same year Sidro graduated from Willard Hs. One of fourteen children, Sidro had started playing guitar at an early age, playing alongside his father and brothers, continuing a long tradition of Garcia family musicians. By the time he graduated from high school he was adept at playing guitar and singing. 

The College of St. Joseph on the Rio Grande (changed to University of Albuquerque in 1966) was a Catholic liberal arts college located at the present site of St. Pius Hs. 6'4” Sidro Garcia arrived on campus ready to suit up for the basketball team and pursue his other passion, music. He was a success on the basketball court (supposedly he received All- American honors) and it didn't take him long to put together The Sneakers, a band that included his brothers Sal, Ray and his cousins Willie and Levi. During Sidro's Junior year at St. Joseph, singer Sue Thompson, touring in support of her hit singles “Sad Movies Always Make Me Cry” and “Norman” came through Albuquerque. The Sneakers either opened for her or someone introduced Sidro to Sue, with Sidro joining her touring band as a result.

A good looking blonde, Thompson's high girlish singing voice had made her a teen favorite even though she was pushing forty at the time. Sidro dropped out of school and spent the next eight months touring the country as Sue Thompson milked her two hits (both written by schlockmeister, John D. Loudermilk) Once the whirlwind tour wrapped up, Sidro returned to Albuquerque and slipped back into The Sneakers. It was at this point that Sidro met his future wife Beverlee Brown, a leggy six foot plus gal who could also sing. Beverlee joined The Sneakers as a vocalist changing the entire dynamic of the band... for the better. Sue Thompson having established herself in Las Vegas, played another important role in Sidro's future when she convinced the band to move to Vegas.

The Sneakers did just that, opening for Jackie Mason at the Aladdin in 1966. Now billed as Beverlee Brown & The Sneakers , they became a show band with a knack for variety while incorporating choreography and comedy bits into their act. Sidro took on the persona of guitar virtuoso and straight man for Bev's antics. Sal Garcia acquired the stage name of Sal Riccardo. (Ray Garcia was no longer with the band) Willie Sisneros- bass, Al Zepeda- guitar, Chris Hamilton- keys and drummer Tom Cross filled out what would be the band's classic lineup. It was the start of a good run as they wowed 'em at the Frontier, Stardust, Sahara, Dunes and the Sands with extended gigs at the Maxim and the Mint. Television appearances on Merv Griffin, Steve Allen, Jim Nabors and Glen Campbell's network shows followed.

Beverlee embodied a slinky Cher Bono persona, while Sidro worked a poor man's Tom Jones shtick. Beverlee's Cher sound-a-like vocals complimented Sidro's deceptively rich vocals perfectly. Naturally, most of the attention went to Beverlee. Chicago Tribune critic Will Leonard noted: “Beverlee is too much. She's a stunningly beautiful gal, an inch or two over six feet tall, in a mini skirt that bestows upon the public some of the lengthiest and prettiest gams on the Near North Side. Wayne Harada writing for Billboard agreed: “Leggy and lovely Beverlee is what singing's all about. She handily delivers the goods” One would think that good legs are essential for good singing.... Wipe the drool off fellas, it's unbecoming of critics. 

The Sneakers opened for Johnny Mathis, George Burns, Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson and others. Elvis Presley came to see the band at the Frontier and invited the members to his show - and his parties - at the Las Vegas Hilton (The International) But, as I'm fond of pointing out; “the times they were-a-changing "Disco came along and audiences wanted to dance” Garcia said. “We had worked on being showy. We continued to do that, but we played for dancers as well." That would explain those matching, sea foam opened front jump suits that both Beverlee and Sidro wore.... sexy, yet cringe worthy.... I'm willing to bet that either one of them could still fit into those. Believe it or not the music was important and for all the glitzy lounge act trappings, The Sneakers could play... have you ever seen a bass player and keyboardist play trumpets while also playing their respective instruments? It's totally awesome.

The band could play just about anything you can think of. They even had a routine where members of the audience would call out their hometowns and the band would play a tune associated with that city. Sidro Garcia, is truly a talented guitarist.... possibly the best to ever come out of New Mexico. His tour de force has long been a performance of Ernesto Lecuona's “Malagueña” seguing effortlessly to Mason Williams' “Classical Gas” it was the showstopper. Sidro and Beverlee also took a crack at pop music stardom, releasing a handful of sunshine pop/bubblegum singles on a variety of labels including "It's Just Not Funny Anymore" b/w "I'm Nothing as of This Day" on John Wagner's Delta Records in 1966 (the single now sells for $150)

Beverlee and Sidro had a son (Sortero) fell out of love, divorced and she left the band. Sidro didn't miss a beat, renaming the band, Sidro's Armada (after the formidable yet so vulnerable Spanish fleet) He sailed on with new female vocalists. Brother Sal remained the only constant, "Counting the time we performed together as kids, Sal and I have been onstage together for more than fifty years” Sidro remarried in 1985. Beverlee rejoined the band and they found their second wind. Gradually, in response to changing times and budget constraints. Sidro downsized the band to a quartet. Now in his mid-70s, Sidro still lives in Las Vegas and plays on occasions. His hands are failing him, but the unsinkable Sidro's Armada, having survived the broadsides, isn't quite ready to sail off into the sunset. Sail on, sail on, sailor.